Persona - Reader Re-Retroview  

The Lunarvale Macekre
by Harrison Gallen

30-60 Hours
+ Some fights are skippable with Spell Cards...
- ...which take too much trial and error to get.
- Annoying menu system.
- Poor spacing of save points.
- Weak plot with Macekred localization.
- Lousy soundtrack.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   A group of students at St. Hermelin High School in Lunarvale play a game called Persona, during which they become unconscious, encountering a mysterious man named Philemon who gives them the ability to summon spirits known as Personas. The students soon make it their goal to stop a man named Guido, head of the SEBEC Corporation, from unleashing demons from an alternate dimension unto their world. Atlus's Persona was one of the first installments of the Megami Tensei franchise released in North America, as well as one of the first RPGs for the Sony PlayStation, sporting unique mechanisms albeit a botched attempt at Americanization.

   Combat is randomly-encountered and turn-based, with Persona having the structure of most old-school turn-based battle systems, where the player inputs all commands for their characters and lets them and the enemy beat each other up in a round. However, there are plenty of twists to this battle system, starting with setup of characters in whatever formation the player specifies in the menus outside battle, with the player needing to keep in mind things such as the range of characters' weapons and skills. It is possible to move a character before a round, but the moved character won't be able to select a command for that round.

   Before inputting commands for characters, the player has a number of options, such as adjusting party formation, attempting to escape (which naturally doesn't work all the time), checking the stats, strengths, and weaknesses of enemies (with their stats only being visible if the player has defeated a specific enemy type in a previous battle), having characters automatically attack, or attempting to make contact with the enemy. If the player chooses to input individual character commands, their options include attacking with a melee weapon, attacking with their gun, using a Persona's ability, changing a Persona (which consumes their turn, with characters able to have up to three Personas each), defending, or using a consumable item.

   The ability to communicate with enemies will definitely play a major role throughout the game, as doing so is necessary to obtain more powerful Personas for each character. Once the player begins communication, a number of different options become available for each character to try and negotiate with the enemy, with a square gauge showing the enemy's mood. If the player angers the enemy, communication will end, although if the player uses the right options, then they can acquire a Spell Card from the enemy that the player can fuse with another Spell Card at Velvet Rooms (where the player can also equip Personas to each character) to create new Personas. Interestingly, if the player communicates with the enemy and already has their Spell Card, then all enemies of that type will leave the battle.

Let us skip them, dammit! Persona animations are nice, but drag out battles.

   As the player uses a Persona's abilities, it will gradually level up, unlocking more abilities to use; interestingly, all of a Persona's abilities require the same amount of SP. After a battle, the player gains experience to level up occasionally and money to buy new items and equipment at shops. The battle system, overall, has some nice ideas, albeit somewhat flawed execution, mainly due to the fact that the conversation system is far too dependent upon trial and error, unless the player uses a guide, the painfully sluggish animation of magic attacks, and the sometimes-restrictive nature of the formation system. It's not a bad system, although the demon conversation is a bit poorly implemented, and combat itself could have flowed more smoothly.

   The controls fare worse. For one, the ring menu system is incredibly annoying, although luckily, players can instantly cancel out all the menus with the O button. The Velvet Room interface, however, is far more unintuitive, and leaves players clueless as to whether or not a character is compatible with a certain kind of Persona before equipping it. The spacing of save points is also dismal, but the game does a decent job pointing players in the right direction. Overall, control in Persona could have easily been much tighter.

   The first Persona borrows many elements from previous Megami Tensei games, such as first-person dungeon exploration and demon negotiation, although the system for doing so is much deeper than in prior installments, even if this doesn't work to the game's advantage. The Persona system is also mildly inventive, despite also borrowing the fusion aspect from previous Megami Tensei titles, and ultimately, while Persona is in some ways an amalgamation of elements from its predecessors, it has enough distinct features of its own to feel distinct.

   While the story breaks many standard RPG plot conventions, namely by taking place in a modernistic setting with high school students, it still falls flat, with scant development and a general degree of corniness. Perhaps the main reason is the botched attempt at Americanization by Atlus, before they became a gold standard in localizations. The localization, often poorly, tries to mask the fact that the original version took place in Japan (with Shinto shrines and Asian-style stores being present), which included a whitewash (and in one case blackface) of the character designs. The story does have some minor strong points, such as a few plot decisions that can affect the ending, but not since Mickey Rooney's performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's have the Japanese been treated with such dignity and respect.

Caption When Jack Frosts attack

   The soundtrack doesn't help the game, either, consisting of many repetitive, often irritating techno tracks, such as the jarring battle theme, and only a few tracks are decent, such as some cutscene pieces, the Velvet Room theme, and the ending theme. There is some voice acting, as well, although it mostly consists of characters lamely shouting out the name of the game in battle. All in all, the sound is largely forgettable, and players won't really miss out on anything if they listen to a CD or their iPod while playing this game.

   The graphics, though, were okay for an early Playstation RPG, combining 2-D and 3-D elements, with first-person dungeon visuals being 3-D and room visuals being 2-D, having anatomically-correct character sprites and scenery in oblique projection. The battle graphics are also 2-D but a tad more simplistic, with the player's party fighting enemies on a floor floating against a psychedelic backdrop. The 3-D town map graphics are inarguably the low point of the visuals, with the player's party and occasional NPCs represented by arrows, along with blocky scenery. Ultimately, the visuals are okay, but certainly haven't aged very well.

   Depending the plot decisions the player makes in the game, Persona can end prematurely in the thirty to forty-five hour range, although the game can go on longer if the makes the right decisions story-wise. Other factors affecting game length include how much time the player spends leveling characters and Personas, and trying to acquire Spell Cards (which can certainly take a while without a guide).

   Overall, Persona was but the beginning of a subseries in the Megami Tensei franchise, and it shows: while the game mechanics do have some good ideas, their execution leaves something to desire, given potential tediousness of demon conversation alongside the tendency of fights to drag on, and most other aspects, including the controls, the story, the localization, and the soundtrack, leave plenty of room for improvement. It's certainly not as playable as future installments of the subseries, and while it definitely has its share of flaws, a forthcoming enhanced port for the PlayStation Portable gives it a much-deserved chance at redemption.

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